St. Petersburg's History in Brief
- St. Petersburg in the 19th century
St. Petersburg was founded on May 16 (new calendar: May 27) 1703, when Peter the Great seized control of the land surrounding the Neva during a protracted war with Sweden. A simple log cabin – the city’s first living quarters – was constructed on the city’s fortress (Peter and Paul Fortress) shortly after this victory. Despite the settlement’s unpromising location – a swamp – and unforgiving climate, Peter pursued his dream of a northern capital. In a typically Russian paradox, the city that would later become a symbol of cosmopolitan, enlightened Europe was founded in the cruellest of conditions. Its builders, primarily peasants and soliders, were driven hard; many died as a result of Peter’s manic work schedule. Even the city’s first white-collar workers were ordered there, and they weren’t very happy about it, either. In 1712 St. Petersburg became the capital and people started coming on their own account. From around 1741, the beginning of Empress Elizabeth’s reign, Peter’s swamp was simply the place to be. The courts of the empresses were graced by the best European artistic, literary and musical talent, and foreign architects, mainly Italian, built fantastic palaces and awe-inspiring churches. St. Petersburg, envisaged by Peter as Russia’s ‘Window to the West’, finally fulfilled its earlier promise.
During the nineteenth century the city assumed an almost mythical status courtesy of the many writers, some of them great, who lived there. Fyodor Dostoevsky is perhaps most synonymous with St. Petersburg. Here’s what he had to say (through one of his characters:) about it: ‘there’s nothing you can’t find in St. Petersburg.’ He was probably right. Nikolai Gogol, another significant Russian (or more precisely, Ukrainian) writer, came to St. Petersburg to work as a public servant, and developed a special loathing – teamed with morbid fascination – for the city. About St. Petersburg’s main street he moaned: “Oh, do not trust this Nevsky Prospect! I always wrap myself more tightly in my cloak when I walk along it and absolutely try not to look at the objects which meet me". Gogol’s friend, otherwise known as Alexander Pushkin, was also a St. Petersburg resident when he was in the mood; among other things, he wrote a very dramatic poem, The Bronze Horseman, about one of the city’s devastating floods.
The emergence of a city of world significance and the concomitant cultural boom was accompanied by less pleasant, but important historical events. In December 1825, inspired by European ideals of freedom, a group of soldiers (called ‘Decembrists’) rebelled against the new emperor, Nicholas I. Nicholas didn’t pay much attention, other than to have the organisers of the revolt executed or exiled, and to adopt extremely conservative government policies. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 under Alexander II was another watershed event – thousands of serfs poured into the city, which wasn’t ready for such an influx; living conditions worsened, as did the population’s tolerance. By the end of the nineteenth century, social conditions hadn’t improved much but St. Petersburg was well on the path to Western-style industrialization.
The first significant event of twentieth-century St. Petersburg was the 1905-7 revolution, sparked by the events of bloody Sunday, when workers protesting on Palace Square were fired upon by soldiers. In response to this revolution the Russian Duma was created. It was met with enthusiasm, but its welcome was short-lived. Russia’s unsuccessful World War I campaign increased social unrest, and by 1917 the situation in the city (now named Petrograd) was dire indeed. Workers striked, bringing the city to a standstill. The Tsar unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss the Duma and order the workers back to work. He eventually abdicated, a provisional government was formed, and the Socialists formed a soviet (council) of workers and soldier’s deputies. Lenin cleverly chose this time to return from exile in Switzerland and was warmly received by peasants, workers, and soliders. He quickly assembled his Bolshevik (majority) party and in October (new calendar: November) 1917, after many behind-the-scenes maneuvers, the soviets seized control of the government, which in March 1918 moved to Moscow. Lenin died in 1924 and St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad in his honor.
The government might have left St. Petersburg (Leningrad) but trouble hadn’t. Quite apart from the tumultuous events of Stalin’s Russia, between September 1941 and January 1944 the city was beseiged for 900 days by invading German forces. While the exact figure is unknown, It is estimated that 800 000 people died from cold and starvation during the 900-day seige (blokada). Miraculously, the city’s residents didn’t surrender. After the blockade ended Leningrad was quickly reconstructed and its population gradually returned to its pre-seige level.
The modern St. Petersburg, which regained its original name in 1991, after the demise of the Soviet Union, is not without its problems. Economic growth and the enthusiasm of the younger generations belies the despair of their parents and grandparents, and the grandeur of the city’s buildings, renovated to their pre-revolutionary glory, sits uncomfortably with neighbouring slums. All the same, the city’s chequered past and ambiguous present are part of its attraction for the millions of tourists who visit it each year.